Until recently, owning or hiring an armored vehicle was reserved for the very powerful or the very rich. With the threat of crime and terrorism on the rise, it’s no wonder that more celebrities, elected officials and other high-profile individuals are making an investment in personal protection.
The worldwide demand for armored vehicles is growing at a rapid pace and is expected to reach 18,000 to 22,000 vehicles in 2003, according to Ford, Cadillac and other sources. A modest growth of 7% to 10% per year is typical for this specialized market segment, but the tragedies of 9/11 changed that. U.S. Secret Service intelligence predicts that the market will grow 20% a year for the foreseeable future.
This ever-evolving industry is experiencing significant change, including an improvement in ballistic materials, changes in the manufacturing processes and, most recently, new entries from the domestic manufacturers.
While overall demand for these vehicles may be growing, there is little evidence that limousine operators in the U.S. are a major part of this trend.
“Our sources are telling us that with the exception of a few celebrities, the livery market is not demanding armored vehicles,” says Scott Solombrino, president of Dav El Chauffeured Transportation Network and the National Limousine Association. “We will continue to evaluate the trends and make recommendations to our members if the need outweighs the prohibitive cost.”
The overseas market is very different. Fighting in some nations has lasted for centuries and death threats and suicide bombings are everyday occurrences. These markets have supported their dignitaries with ballistic protection for decades.
Manufacturers like Mercedes, BMW, Volvo and Audi have built their own armored vehicles, while cars from other manufacturers, like Land Rover, Jaguar and Bentley, have been modified by armorers for years.
Protection Is More Than Skin Deep
The modified areas most important in armored vehicles are those that offer ballistic protection for the driver and passenger compartments. Engineered and tested to accept attack while maintaining the integrity of the passenger compartment is the ultimate objective of any armored vehicle.
• Windows: The transparent materials are arguably some of the most important because attackers tend to shoot at what they see. Armored vehicles are equipped with windows that can be twice as thick as those in standard vehicles. This additional mass is often a combination of composite materials, fused together to stop even high-powered rifle rounds.
• Doors: Bullet-resistant plates of steel are used in conjunction with advanced, ceramic composites to fortify the doors and other surfaces. Careful attention is also paid to “ballistic gap areas,” the susceptible areas between doors and door-roof connections.
• Floor: Interwoven ballistic fibers are used to provide limited blast protection from below.
• Tires: Equipped with run-flat inserts, tires allow the vehicle to continue moving at reasonable speeds for a considerable distance.
• Fuel tank: Modified to reduce leakage after an attack, the fuel tank allows a compromised vehicle to travel away from the point of attack.
To know which system will offer the right protection, any potential buyer must first assess the risks the car might face.
Additional options can include intercom systems, fire suppression systems, ram bumpers, return-fire capability and just about any other personal protection or security feature that one can imagine.
This is one trend worth watching. According to a late-2001 J.D. Power and Associates survey, “Nearly seven out of eight consumers put run-flat tires and side-window security glass at the top of their list of emerging features they would like to have in their next vehicle.”
Empire International, one of the largest limousine operators in the U.S., last year established a subsidiary called Secure Car Worldwide. President David Seelinger told MSNBC in a recent interview that they are working to keep up with the demand for the steel-plated limos.
U.S. Armorers Respond
In the overseas market for armored vehicles, Mercedes has ruled for decades. In the domestic market, an increasing variety of vehicles are being offered by a handful of manufacturers:
• O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt
The largest, oldest and most comprehensive armoring company in the world. With manufacturing plants in eight countries, O’Gara, with its U.S. operations based in Fairfield, Ohio, has protected customers in 80 countries in its 55-year history.
“We do one thing and we do it well. We armor vehicles and save lives,” said Eva Keller, marketing manager for O’Gara-Hess, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Armor Holdings.
Growth can be expected in areas of the world where threats are occurring regularly, according to O’Gara representatives. And it is this constant level of threat that dedicates the O’Gara team to continuous research and development.
Working with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, O’Gara has developed a highly effective explosion-resistant protection system. O’Gara, under the umbrella of its parent company, also maintains the largest database of ballistic information in the world.
Capable of armoring sedans, limousines, trucks and SUVs from handgun protection all the way to blast protection, O’Gara has worked with the world’s most prominent private and government dignitaries.
Select manufacturers, like Land Rover, have chosen O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt as their armoring partner for their vehicles worldwide.
Web site: www.ogara-hess.com/home.htm.
• Scaletta Moloney Armoring
The firm began in the early 1970s as Moloney Coachbuilders, earning a reputation for producing some of the most elegant limousines in the world. In the late 1980s, the company’s new ownership responded to an increased global demand for armored passenger vehicles by making armoring its primary focus.
New materials and armor system integration are the main focus of the business today. Scaletta, based in Bedford Park, Ill., is currently using math-based technology to design an armoring system that is native to the manufacturing process. This will provide the industry with unparalleled fit and finish, and most importantly – protection.
“Armor integration is critical to protection, of course, but it’s also important because our customers – the government, corporations, celebrities, Cadillac – expect armored vehicles to look unarmored,” says Dan Trainor, marketing vice president for Scaletta.
“We’re seeing more inquiries and sales from the domestic commercial sector than ever before,” Trainor adds.
Web site: www.scaletta.com.
The San Antonio, Texas,-based limousine builder, has provided National Institute of Justice Level I-IV armored sedans and limousines to the commercial and private market for years.
Currently in development is a new product for low-level ballistic protection. This high-grade polycarbonate material will allow driver and passenger to randomly opaque the windows, while also providing smash-and-grab/handgun protection.
“Attackers are most likely to hit what they can see. By opaquing the windows, the passengers and their contents are indistinguishable,” said Ken Boyar, LCW president.
Boyar believes that as perceived threats continue, more corporate clients and limousine operators will look for low-cost alternatives to give their clients peace of mind, without breaking their bank accounts.
Web site: www.lcwlimo.com.
• Classic International Armoring
Classic Limousine’s armoring division, is capable of producing vehicles through NIJ Level IV protection. With its in-house design and engineering staff, Classic, based in Fountain Valley, Calif., develops armored vehicles for use throughout the world.
Founded by Nick Giacobone in 1988, Classic International Armoring is certified by the U.S. government to build armored vehicles and has analyzed, tested and reviewed the various products available in the marketplace.
“Classic has developed distinct materials that protect passengers from high velocity projectiles,” says Giacobone. “We use Classic Guard, a sandwiched combination of ceramic tile and multiple layers of high-tech aerospace composite materials. Ultimately, it’s much lighter than conventional materials and allows us versatility to mold the interior of the vehicle.”
Web site: www.classiclimo.com.